Peter Pan & Wendy: Never Lands, by Tyler Smith
To watch David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy, is to engage in a frustrating – but fascinating – conflict. Produced by Disnay, the film attempts to capture the whimsical spirit of the 1953 animated feature, while trying to inject modern complexities. The result is often intriguing, but ultimately falls short of being a truly satisfying film going experience.
For those familiar with J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, the beginning of the film holds no real surprises, Wendy Darling (Ever Anderson) and her two younger brothers (Joshua Pickering) and (Jacobi Jupe) are living in their stuffy London home, frustrated by the rigidity of their uptight parents. They are soon whisked away by the magical “Boy who never grew up”, Peter Pan (Alexander Molony) and his pixie friend, Tinker Bell (Yara Shahidi), to the wondrous Neverland. There they encounter Peter’s loyal followers, the Lost Boys, along with a band of fearsome pirates, lead by the misanthropic Captain Hook (Jude Law).
What follows is a battle between boy and man, young and old, good and evil. This is nothing new in the story of Peter Pan. However, Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks strive to modernize and soften the story, changing character motivations and backstory. This is a perfectly admirable goal, but the writers never quite manage to blend these two sensibilities. Instead, it often feels like they bring the fantastical and other worldly elements of the story to a screeching halt so that we might confront the psychological intricacies that lay behind our characters actions. This leads to my suspicion that Lowery feels hemmed in by his source material and is eager to shoehorn in his own narrative preoccupations.
So focused is Lowery on these new elements, that he forgets to incorporate many of the basic plot points of the original story. For example, it is established that Captain Hook hates clocks, but we are never shown why, as when the crocodile does show up his trademark ticking sound does not precede him. Furthermore, the characters – and the audience – are never allowed to truly take in the beauty and awe of Neverland.
This last omission is especially unfortunate, as Lowery brings his signature visual style to the film. Every frame of the film is filled with minute detail and lush colors. Lowery is first and foremost a visualist, finding romance and beauty in even the most dour of settings, so it is a shame that we are rarely given the opportunity to explore the gorgeous frames he creates. He is too busy delving into complicated back stories to ever truly invite us into this amazing world.
And charged with delivering this flagrant exposition is an ensemble of talented actors, with one notable exception. Providing the heart and soul of the film is Anderson. She hits every beat with the perfect blend of childlike wonder and a nagging sense of responsibility. Wendy is a character that has always tempered her excitement with skepticism, and Anderson plays both beautifully. As Hook, Law imbues the character with the appropriate amount of melancholy, suggesting that Hook is conflicted about his evil temperament, but can’t do anything about it. The rest of the cast provides solid support for our leads, which makes Molony’s lackluster performance all the more unfortunate. While perfectly capable of selling the emotions of the character he never quite exudes the charisma necessary to make us really root for him. Peter Pan requires a level of reckless energy that inherently draws the audience’s attention to him. Sadly, though Molony is not an untalented actor, he never achieves the necessary spark that makes for a memorable performance.
In the end, Peter Pan & Wendy is a fantasy film that undercuts its own sense of wonder. Despite gorgeous visuals and some inspired performances the film gets bogged down in the director’s more modern intentions. It is this conflict that keeps an otherwise intriguing movie from ever taking flight.